Writing Effective Dialogue (Punctuation and Actions in Creative Writing)

Writing > Creative Writing

“What brings you to my hermitage on such a stormy night?” asks the old man.

“I want to learn how to write dialogue. I… I’m a writer.”

“Are you?” he says. His eyes take me in for a moment. Then he opens the door.

“I want to know where the punctuation goes,” I say, wringing out my cloak in the hall.

“Do you need me for that?” he asks, settling himself by a crackling fire. “What does your favorite author do?”

I fish Divergent out of my pack. There’s some dialogue on page 2.

Good Example

“So today is the day,” she says.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Are you nervous?”

How to Write Dialogue -- Jerz's Literacy WeblogEach speech gets its own indented paragraph,” I say.

“What else do you see?”

“These quotations end with a comma, followed by a tag identifying the speaker.”

“Every time?”

“Well, no. There’s no need to label every line when it’s obvious who’s speaking.”

“Very good. Read on.”

Good Example

“No,” I say. “The tests don’t have to change our choices.”

“Right.” She smiles. “Let’s go eat breakfast.”

“Thank you. For cutting my hair.”

“For a longer speech,” I say, “we can pause briefly to identify the speaker, and carry on.”

“True.” He cocks his head. “But what about the punctuation?”

“What do you mean?” I look more closely. “I see now. Sometimes the quoted passage ends with a comma, and sometimes it ends with a period.”

The old man hums to himself patiently, as the fire crackles.

“During the first paragraph,” I say, “the author simply pauses to identify who’s talking.”

“And the second?”

“After the character finishes her thought, the author is describing a separate action, other than speaking. A period is a deliberate choice.” I look up at the old man. “To slow the pace.”

“Excellent,” he says. “But what about the third line?”

“It could have been written without any break. ‘Thank you for cutting my hair.'”


“But a period marks the phrases as separate thoughts,” I say. “The bit about the hair is an afterthought. The reader is supposed to notice the narrator changed the subject to hide her feelings.”

I skip ahead to page 5.

Good Example

“You aren’t at all worried about what they’ll tell you?” I ask Caleb.

He raises an eyebrow at me. “Are you?”

I could tell him I’ve been worried for weeks about [blah blah].

Instead I smile and say, “Not really.”

He smiles back. “Well… have a good day.”

I walk toward Faction History, chewing on my lower lip. He never answered my question.

“What can you tell from this passage?” the old man asks.

“The narrator intersperses dialogue tags with descriptions of actions. She lets us know that she smiles instead of saying what she’s thinking. Her brother is smiling too, and though we don’t know what he’s thinking, we see that his dialogue trails off, and we know something’s wrong because Tris bites her lip.”

The old man pours himself a cup of tea. “Why doesn’t the author just come right out and say, ‘Hey everyone, here’s an important plot point!’?”

“What do you mean?” I say, my brows furrowing in confusion.

“Hold on,” says the old man. “What just happened?”

“Er…. I frowned. Because I was confused. Why are you glaring at me?”

“I already knew you were confused, because you said ‘What do you mean?’ A reader who has been following our conversation wouldn’t also need a description of your facial expression in order to know how they’re supposed to feel. Would they need a description of my face, now that you’ve stated that I’m glaring at you?”

“No, that would be redundant. They’d probably be more interested in how you suddenly started talking as if you knew how an author is writing your scene. That would distract from the story.”

“You’re right,” he says with a dry laugh. “But you did the same thing when you described the look on your face.  Narrators shouldn’t convey emotion by describing their own facial expressions.

“But right there in Divergent, it says: ‘I smile.’ It also says Tris is chewing her lip. Why does Veronica Roth’s narrator get to describe her own facial expressions?”

The old man leans forward. “As a first-person narrator, you could report that you choose to smile, or that you feel yourself biting your lip. But your narrator can’t watch a camera that is zoomed in on her own face, so as author you can’t have your narrator report subtle visual details, such as the color rising in her cheeks, or the way her nose crinkles adorably when she gets frustrated.”

“I think you’ve made your point,” I say, feeling my face heat up. “So, a first-person narrator can mention a deliberate action like mopping her brow, or she can quote dialogue that includes a stammer, but she can’t describe the beads of sweat glistening on her forehead or come up with a poetic simile for how her lower lip looks as it trembles.”

“Right. And she can quote herself saying something clever, but someone else has to mention the spark of intelligence flashing in her deep brown eyes. Stepping out of a first-person narrator’s head to describe a movie-style close-up breaks the author’s contract with the reader.”

“Okay.” I let out a long breath. “I can see that learning all these conventions is important.”

“Picasso spent years perfecting a realistic portrait style before he chose to unsettle his viewers by defying the very conventions he had mastered.”

“Whoa,” I say. “Those links really drive your point home.”

“Thanks. You’re speaking a little less hesitantly, which suggests–“

“That I’m no longer showing outward signs of nervousness.”


“That I’ve got a better handle on how punctuation signals pacing in dialogue.”

I start flipping pages, scanning whatever dialogue catches my eye. “Commas indicate the slightest pause, a period indicates a full stop between complete thoughts, and three dots suggests the speaker is trailing off before finishing a thought.”

“And if you wanted to indicate an interruption–“

“Here’s one, on page 22!”

Good Example

She clears her throat and continues. “Your intelligent response to the dog indicates strong alignment with the Erudite. I have no idea what to make of your indecision in stage one, but–“

“Wait,” I interrupt her. “So you have no idea what my aptitude is?”

“The author probably didn’t need to say ‘I interrupt her,’ because the dash already signals a break,” I say. “Hmm. I notice that this dash is not just a single minus sign, like a hyphen.”

“Correct. Some word processors will auto-correct two hyphens to make a dash–but the shorter hyphen and the longer dash serve different purposes. Hyphens join; dashes separate. Writing ‘auto–correct’ or ‘dash-but’ would change the meaning.”

“I think I understand,” I say.

Smiling, the old man fills another teacup, and offers it to me.

Cradling the cup in one hand, I start unlacing my boots, staring into the fire. “I never realized how much careful planning goes into crafting dialogue.”

The old man nods. “Punctuating dialogue properly is important, but actions speak loudly, too. When I offered you tea, and you unlaced your boots at my hearth, we didn’t need any words stating that there was a comfortable lull in our conversation. The careful placement of details created a little pause. It was a good example of showing rather than telling.”

Outside, the wind howls. The old man puts another log on the fire. I sip my tea, feeling it warm my insides.

“Thank you.” I say. “For sharing your hermitage on such a stormy night.”


“For teaching me how punctuation and actions work together in dialogue.

31 Dec 2014 — first published.
09 Jun 2016 — minor edits.